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Mitchell Center Iconography

July 16, 2012

by Ken Allsen

Questions were recently posed about a particular carving on the Mitchell Center of the Mayo Medical School. Who does it represent? Why is it there? Is it something to do with medicine? I decided to dig a bit. Here is my opinion.

Carving in stone on the old library

Figure 1

The carving (see Figure 1)  is on the west side of the Mitchell Center, formerly the Rochester Public Library designed by local architect Harold Crawford in the mid 1930s. It is one of a grouping of carvings above an arched entrance door. This door, now an entrance to the Medical School, was originally the entrance to the children’s portion of the old library. It is only in this context that the carving in question begins to make sense. The entire group of carvings represents the themes of many of Aesop’s Fables, the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes, etc. But our carving, tucked away on the far right of the grouping, is an anomaly. It represents a rather grotesque head, peering into a mortar and pestle, with a small imp or demon perched on its edge.

drawing of Aesop

Figure 2

I decided to start by identifying the face in the carving. I did some online research on Aesop himself to look for a clue, and stumbled on a drawing of him, done in the 1500s (see Figure 2). It bears a startling resemblance to the face in our carving: the bulging eyes, the frown, the beard, the head dress. Accompanying this drawing on the net, I found a brief biography of Aesop. He lived in Athens in the 6th Century BC, and was a slave belonging to an important citizen named Xanthus. Aesop was an African, probably Ethiopian in origin. He entertained his master and his friends with fabulous tales based on those told among the tribes of Africa for centuries. These tales all had the requisite  moral lesson, but Aesop took it a step farther. He would use them to lampoon and point out the faults of important Athenians. His personality was reportedly a bit on the nasty and sarcastic side, and his tales did nothing to endear him to others. He finally met his end because of his barbed wit. While visiting Delphi with his master, he began to speak of the Oracle in highly insulting terms. A group of outraged worshipers seized Aesop and threw him off a high cliff, to his death.

All that is known of Aesop’s life and death is from the historian Herodotus, writing a century after Aesop’s death. The physical description reflected in later drawings is in his writings, as is the manner of his death. So, assuming the figure in the carving is Aesop, what is the significance of the Mortar, Pestle and Imp? This combination of symbols originated in medieval times, and denoted poison. If we turn again to Herodotus, he mentions the Athenians’ use of the term “poison arrows” to describe Aesop’s stories directed at important citizens. Thus I think the carving shows Aesop contemplating the next target for one of his poison arrows, thinking of a moralistic tale to point out their flaws and embarrass them.

It is interesting to note that the original drawings for the Public Library show details for most of the other key carvings and glass work in the building. The children’s entrance, however, shows only a very simple floral detail around the arch. The Aesop theme was laid out and added after the drawings were completed. Harold Crawford was not only a talented architect. He was also well-read in the classics, and was certainly aware of the writings of Herodotus. The carved references to Aesop’s many fables above the arch certainly are appropriate for a children’s entrance to a library.  Why Harold Crawford felt it necessary to point out the true nature of those tales, and the damage they could cause, I do not know. I will leave that for others to contemplate.

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